published Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Family finds body of missing boater

Billie Hess, right, hugs Jennifer Brauch Friday near the Chickamauga Dam marina. Hess' son, Jimmy Hess, had been missing since he fell from a sailboat Tuesday, but his body was recovered.
Billie Hess, right, hugs Jennifer Brauch Friday near the Chickamauga Dam marina. Hess' son, Jimmy Hess, had been missing since he fell from a sailboat Tuesday, but his body was recovered.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Friends and family members were not going to quit until they found Jimmy Hess.

He fell into Chickamauga Lake about 4 a.m. Tuesday and disappeared. No one had seen him since. A determined group of friends searched for his body after dark Thursday, staying out until 1:30 a.m. Friday, then went back at 10:15 a.m.

“We found him at 10:30 a.m. We went straight to him,” said Brian McClure, Jimmy Hess’ former boss and close friend. “I just felt I knew exactly where he was.”

Authorities confirmed the news everyone dreaded but, in a way, were relieved to find out — the body belonged to the 37-year-old who went overboard from a sailboat. He was found just above Chickamauga Dam, authorities said.

Billie Hess, Jimmy’s father, said he had been praying that they would find his son, although he suspected from the first that his boy was dead.

“I’m tired, I’m worn out,” he said Friday, choking back tears.

But he needed to be there. He needed to make sure everything was being done to find his son.

About noon Friday, he still wore the binoculars he had kept around his neck almost nonstop since Tuesday, the binoculars he was hoping would help him see his son.

Brian Letner, Southeast Tennessee district boating officer with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said Jimmy Hess’ body was taken Friday to the Hamilton County medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.

“I’m hoping the autopsy will answer some questions for me,” said Billie Hess.

At this point, just by looking at the body, Letner said, it’s hard to determine the circumstances surrounding his death.

Jimmy Hess’ parents, Billie Hess and Beverly Freeman, suspect foul play, but Letner said they are still investigating and “all options are on the table at this time.”

Authorities received a 911 call about 4 a.m. Tuesday from people who were still on the sailboat and told police they searched for Jimmy Hess for an hour before calling.

There were reports that the occupants were intoxicated and disoriented, according to Chattanooga police. There also were reports there was a fight onboard before Hess went over, police said.

“I don’t know why this happened. I can’t figure it out,” said Beverly Freeman as she tried to maintain her composure. “I would like to have some closure though, to find out what happened out there.”

“The world is going to be lost without him,” said Virginia Sprayberry, one of Jimmy Hess’ aunts.

This is the first boat-related fatality of the year in the Chattanooga area, Letner said.

On Friday, standing on the shore a little more than half a mile from where his body was found, about 30 family members and friends consoled each other and shared stories about Jimmy Hess. They described him a devoted father of three; a person always there to help; someone who loved the water.

And someone who, no matter how mad he was, would always have a smile on his face. It was a contagious smile, his mother said.

“It’s sad to lose him,” said McClure.

Staff writer Beth Burger contributed to this report.

about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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